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VIRGINIA RAYMOND: We're here with David Atwood in the Olive Branch Room of the Maryknoll Fathers' House in Houston, Texas—
DAVID ATWOOD: Right.
RAYMOND: —on Rice Boulevard, and we thank the Maryknolls for letting us be here. It is September twenty-fifth, 2008 and the voice you hear is Virginia
Raymond, conducting the interview or listening, mostly. And Gabriel Solis is behind the camera. And thank you very much.
ATWOOD: You're welcome.
RAYMOND: So, just—we had talked a little bit before about what we were doing at Texas After Violence Project,
RAYMOND: and that we are asking you to interview you today for both public education, non-commercial uses, perhaps soon, and also for the historical
RAYMOND: And do you consent to be interviewed today?
ATWOOD: Yes, I do consent.
RAYMOND: All right. Thank you, and then you'll have an opportunity—you can either have an opportunity to review the transcript before donating it
to us or you could donate it to us now if you feel comfortable with what you are going to say.
ATWOOD: Yeah, I feel comfortable with donating it to you now.
RAYMOND: All right, thank you, and we will use it for a variety of purposes, and maybe spliced in with other interviews to share your experiences with
ATWOOD: Sure. Thank you. Good.
RAYMOND: Thank you. So, you have been involved in the anti-death penalty movement very intensely. I wonder if you could tell us about yourself and how
you got into that work.
ATWOOD: Well, I moved to Houston back in the early seventies. I came down to Texas with the Shell Oil Company. And it was in the late 1980s that I
first started to hear about the death penalty. I was totally unfamiliar with the subject at all.
I mean I just didn't have any interest in it. It wasn't any thing that affected my life, and I was serving on a committee called the Catholic Campaign for
Human Development in the Catholic Diocese here in Houston, and we had a Catholic nun, her name is Sister Gina Moore, who actually came to our committee and asked if we would financially
sponsor a small newspaper called
The Endeavor, that was written by prisoners on Death Row.
And they needed some financial help to actually put the paper together outside of the prison and make copies and distribute it. And we agreed to do that. And
that was really my first contact with the death penalty at that time.
Like I say, I didn't have any experience whatsoever with it. I didn't know anything. And for some reason though it caught my attention more than maybe some
other things. And I started to research it and thought this is interesting.
And I found out first of all since we were—our committee was a Catholic committee, I tried to find out what the Catholic Church had said about the death
penalty because I didn't have any idea whatsoever, and did find out that the Catholic Church had—the bishops in the United States had made a statement back in 1980. And—but I didn't know
about it. Nobody knew about it. I don't think—it was pretty well hidden.
And so I thought that was interesting, and that got me started. And then I started doing more research on the subject matter, and that's what pulled me
into the whole subject.
RAYMOND: You had obviously come from a background of social justice work before working on the death penalty—
ATWOOD: Right. Right. I—This Catholic Campaign for Human Development, what it is, is the Catholic— U.S. Catholic Bishops' Anti-Poverty
And I served on a committee that would go out into the community and talk to people about their needs and whether they could use some funding to get
something started to help poor people, to empower the poor.
And so I'd been doing that for several years before. I had been for maybe over ten years leading up to this time in a period of personal development and
transformation myself, both from an educational point of view and spiritual also, which caused me to become much more interested in what was happening to people around me.
I was still working at that time for Shell Oil Company, but even within Shell, my interest was in the area of safety and environmental protection, so I
was more interested there in helping people and protecting the environment than trying to earn big bucks for Shell.
I mean, my belief was that anything you did in those areas would be good not only for society in general, but also for the company, too. So, it all fit
together, but I was still working for Shell at that time.
But I was developing more of a social conscience at that time and I'd gone away on a number of retreats. I went out to New Mexico for over a month for
a—to a monastery, and so I was going through some pretty tremendous changes in myself.
RAYMOND: And you also were telling me, you've written in your book about living in community.
ATWOOD: Right, right. We had, back in the seventies, we had become very interested in the whole idea of an extended community, extended households. We
had a situation with a—we had joined a what we called at that time the medical community.
It was a small Christian interdenominational community, a number of families from different faith backgrounds. And we all came together to form this
community of prayer and work really, where we had people live with us in our home.
I think we had three children at a time, but we were moving on to more, but we had three at that time. And so we had several individuals that lived with us
and they worked as volunteers in the clinic. My wife did part time work in this clinic.
It was a clinic in the Fourth Ward of Houston for the poor there. It was a free clinic and—on West Grey, the building is still there. And everybody that
worked in that clinic worked pretty much as volunteers.
And we were drawn into that in the seventies—in the early seventies and did that for several years. And also we had got involved in some other spiritual
activities that were focused on the poor. And pretty much that changed our lives dramatically.
And it certainly opened me up to—I became much more sensitive to the needs of people, particularly poor people, and people with need. And so we did this
through the seventies and into the eighties, actually.
And all this time I was going through a spiritual development myself. And then in the—like I say, in the late 1980s, I was working on this Catholic Campaign
for Human Development and this whole thing started with the death penalty, which is totally new and totally different from anything else I'd worked on before.
RAYMOND: Started—everything started with the death penalty in terms of your life?
ATWOOD: Yes. Right. I mean I really had not—I didn't have anything in my family or my wife's family or anybody I even knew that had anything to do with
the criminal justice system. My—I didn't know anybody in prison. I didn't know anybody in jail.
I hadn't had any relatives that had gone to prison. I mean, I didn't—nothing pulled me in from personal experience, which is sort of interesting because you
would think that there would be something. And many times there is something that will pull people into a particular subject.
But in this case, there was nothing like that that I could identify. But what happened is that when I got more interested in the subject and I met some
people, someone asked me to visit a prisoner on Death Row. And—which I did.
And that was the hook that really brought me in because I knew that I was visiting a person who was destined to be executed. And after you meet
people like this personally and you meet their families, and you see them as human beings, no matter what they've done, you still see them as a human being.
And it's very hard to just say that's all right to do that. And so often people become rehabilitated, which unfortunately in our state and our society,
rehabilitation counts for nothing.
And so to say that we're going to go ahead and execute these people no matter what changes have taken place in their life, no matter if they repent, no
matter what, I thought was just totally wrong. And I saw their humanity, and I just felt like I had to fight against the death penalty.
RAYMOND: Can you tell us a little bit more about this first visit, who you visited and what it was like for you to go there, what you saw?
ATWOOD: Yeah, the first person that I visited on Death Row was a guy named Richard Jones. Richard was from Fort Worth and he was there because of
a woman that had been murdered during a robbery up in Fort Worth.
And ‘course I went up assuming—the reason I visited him was that there was some friends, some people from Italy who had visited him and asked me if I would
go visit him when they went back to Italy.
And so, Richard—well you have stereotypes of what somebody's gonna be like, a hardened criminal, and—just the stereotypes that everybody has. And
Richard didn't fit in any of those categories at all.
I mean, he had a—he was just a nice guy to visit with. He had a great sense of humor, and it was just a very pleasant experience. These visits last
about two hours long, which to some people might think that's an awful long time for a visit,
but with Richard it would just go by like that, very quickly, 'cause it was a good experience. And I assumed though that he was guilty. And the reality is
that most people on Death Row are guilty.
But, over time, visiting with him and getting more interested in his case, and I visited with his attorney that was working on his appeals and, of course,
the friends from Italian—from Italy had always told me that they thought Richard was innocent.
And I didn't know what to think about that. I said, well, maybe. I don't know. But over time I really became to—came to believe that he was
And his attorney, his appeals attorney—lots of times the, if you have a one-on-one discussion with an appeals attorney and it's confidential, they're gonna
pretty much tell you the truth. They don't have any reason not to.
And so this appeals attorney said, "You know I really do believe that Richard Jones is innocent." And he gave me the reasons. And it was very convincing. And
certainly Richard didn't seem like any hardened murderer at all.
So, I did become convinced over time that he was innocent. And what he had done—the person who committed the murder was probably the boyfriend of his sister.
And he was covering for his sister and her boyfriend.
And I think he thought, at the time, that he decided to go ahead and take this rap that he—somehow the truth would come out and everything would work out
okay. It wasn't working that way.
And he was eventually executed in 2000, which was a very, very painful experience for everybody involved. I mean, I'd known him many years at that
And his friends from Europe, from Italy and from Switzerland, we were all there and I spoke to him on the phone before he was executed. It was a horrible
experience to talk with somebody knowing that within an hour or so they were going to die.
And, but Richard was the first one that I visited on Death Row. And he certainly changed my perception of what a death row prison would be like.
You know I always get a—I think about these guys who are so, they're demonized by our society because of what they've done, but then many times I think back
to these people in the Bible who committed murder, and then later became big Biblical heroes.
And I think wow, what a difference. So—and I've seen so many of these people become rehabilitated over time.
But it changed my perception totally and really, like I said, I think really got me deeply involved in wanting to abolish the death penalty because I saw
RAYMOND: So when was your first visit to Richard Jones in relationship to the events you talk about in the book—the founding of the Texas Coalition
Against the Death Penalty, your visit to Washington D.C. for a national conference. Were these things happening at the same time?
ATWOOD: Yeah, they—Through the—when I first started learning about the death penalty in the late 1980s and it—there were a number of years—I was still
working pretty intensely in my regular job.
Although at that time, I had left Shell in 1991, and I was doing consulting work, but it was still intensive work. It included a lot of travel. And it was
all within working with corporations doing reviews and audits and things like that.
And so there was a period from the late eighties up ‘til like ninety-three, ninety-four, where I'm still learning about everything. I hadn't really taken a
positive step to say I'm gonna devote really my life to this at that point.
We had the national coalition people could see that there were some people that were interested in doing something in this area, and they came down and they
encouraged us to do it. And then they went away, basically. They went back to Washington and we didn't hear from them for a while.
And I can remember sitting around saying, Well, looks like if something's gonna be done in terms of forming an organization to really work on this,
we're gonna have to do it ourselves.
And that was around, I think that was around ninety-four, ninety-five, in that time frame. And so I called up some of the other people in Houston who
were—had come to some of those earlier meetings, and we—I said, Let's get together and let's make this happen.
I said, We really should. Because we—everything that had been done up to that point had been sort of spotty I guess is the best way to word—there was no
organization in place to work on this.
Like I have in my book, I have, like Rick Halperin had done some stuff up in Dallas, and through Amnesty International primarily. And he did that, put
together that march in 1992.
There had been some individual cases that had been focused on where people thought they were innocent, and people came together and worked on that and put a
lot of effort into those, but then when that was done, everybody would basically go home and that was the end of it.
And so there was no consistent effort to abolish the death penalty in Texas. So that's what we started in—around ninety-four, ninety-five, in that time
frame. And we just started meeting here just like in a room like this. We just started coming together on a monthly basis. And we just picked out a name—Texas Coalition to Abolish the
And we just met in Houston for quite a few years. But my vision had always been to make it—that it would be a statewide organization. It would become a
non-profit corporation. And also that it would be an organization with a lot of credibility because this was a difficult subject to work on in this state in particular.
And so I wanted the people that were involved in the Texas Coalition to be people that would, say if they got up before say a group of businessmen, or folks
that were sort of conservative in their outlook on life, that they could make a good presentation to those people and be convincing.
They may not always come with you the first time around, but they would hear a good argument, they would see somebody talking on the subject matter that was
credible and that brought forth good arguments why we shouldn't have the death penalty. I looked at the Texas Coalition as an educational organization. I always have. Primarily
We work on—we do some other specific things, but primarily education of the citizens with the belief that the average Texas citizen with good information,
good arguments, would be convinced that the death penalty was not good for this state or for anybody.
And that's sort of been our philosophy all along. And so there are some other groups around Texas that are more I guess you'd say radical in a way, and
that's what they do and that's fine. That's more their approach. We've done a few radical things. Not too much, but a few things we've done. But generally, we're sort of
And so we've got people in our organization now—I'm jumping ahead a little bit I realize—that are, you know, we've got people who have been in the military.
One Air Force Commander. One Army Colonel. We've got a couple of Republicans even.
So we're not all Democrats. And it's great to have people like that because if you get somebody who you don't think would be against the death penalty
just by looking at them, sort of—and what that person looks like is usually a white male, older male person, who looks conservative. You look at him and say, "This is a conservative guy."
But then he comes forward and he talks against the death penalty.
That really is effective with a lot of people. And we've got a number of people that can do that. We've got a number of university professors who speak out
very well and a lot of just average good Texas citizens who are part of our organization.
RAYMOND: I wonder—this is all helpful and all useful so—I want—you said you're going out of order. Any order that you want to talk in is the right
ATWOOD: Yeah. Okay.
RAYMOND: But I wonder if you could talk about—you visited Richard Jones. Were there other people that you were also getting to know?
RAYMOND: Can you tell us about that?
ATWOOD: Yeah, there were—The—Richard was the first person.
But another guy I started to visit very early in the—when I started to do that was a guy named Dominique Green from Houston. And another one was James
Allridge from Fort Worth. Both African American guys.
I'll talk about Dominique a little bit. Dominique was a rather unique person, that's the only thing I can say about him. And there's a lot that's being
written on him particularly right now. There's a video that's about to come out called "Thou Shalt Not Kill."
It's being put together by an Italian group. There's a fellow named Tom Cahill who's a well-known author out in New York who is writing a book on Dominique
Green. He's gonna call it,
A Saint on Death Row.
And—but I was one, again, I got—I started visiting Dominique because of a woman from Italy named Barbara Bacci, who had visited Dominique. And when she
went back to Italy again, she asked me if I would continue to go up and see him. And so I went up and I visited Dominique.
And when I first met him—and this was probably around ninety-six or so—around that time, still mid-nineties basically, I met a guy, a young, I guess you'd
say a young angry Black fellow who was only about twenty, twenty-one at that time.
And Dominique was—he was angry. He was. And he was angry at the criminal justice system, he was angry at what happened to him in his life, he was angry
at his mother ‘cause he felt like she contributed to him going to Death Row.
And he—and so—and lots of times, there are some people when you visit them on Death Row, you visit many times you do visit wounded people.
And you have to sort of be resolved that if they say something or do something that might turn you off or discourage you from visiting even, that if you are
really interested in helping somebody that you don't allow that to happen.
And that didn't happen with me, but it did happen, I remember, with Barbara. Dominique wrote her a letter and basically said, "Goodbye, you're not doing
enough for me and you're not helping me out." And that was an indication of where he was back then.
Now—then I wrote him a letter and I said, Dominique, Barbara Bacci from Italy is your best friend. Don't drive her away. And I think he wrote her a
letter after that and apologized. But well, I had one prisoner one time write me a letter.
I won't mention his name. But he wrote a two-page letter and used every swear word in the book that you can imagine. He said, "Dear Dave, blankety blank,
blankety blank, blank blank blank. Sincerely," at the end, "your friend Paul."
It was two pages of swear words at me. And I wrote him back. And I says, Paul, seems like you're a little angry with me at this moment. And he says—he
wrote me back and he said, "I thought you'd never write me back after I wrote that letter."
He thought I'd done something, which hadn't happened. But the thing happens, the people on death row, they're living in a little six-by-ten box, basically,
for twenty-three hours a day with no contact. They're basically in solitary confinement.
They don't have any work program anymore. They don't have any church services. They don't have any group recreation. They took away a lot of their arts and
They're in isolation and things can—their minds can play tricks on them very easily. And they can misinterpret things.
And the ones that maintain their sanity, quite frankly, under those conditions, I think it's amazing they can maintain their sanity. And some
don't. Some don't maintain their sanity. Some go crazy under those conditions and some commit suicide.
It's very inhumane conditions. I think it's cruel and unusual punishment myself. But, so when they—when something weird like that happens, rather
than writing off the person you gotta sort of dig into it a little bit.
Well anyway, getting back to Dominique, he was angry and the reason he was angry was that first of all he said he was with a gang of boys. And they had
robbed a man in Houston and the man was shot. The man resisted the robbery.
He was shot and killed. The gang, who was made up of three African American boys, Dominique was one of them, and one white boy.
Dominique got the death penalty, the two other African American boys got prison sentences, and the white boy didn't spend a day in jail. And Dominique said,
"I wasn't even the one that actually shot the guy." He was the youngest of the group. That often happens.
If there's a group, or even two people, they—the District Attorney will try to get somebody to rat on the other one. And they all ratted against Dominique.
They all came together and did that.
And whether he was the one that—I never was sure who actually did the shooting in that case, but Dominique was the one that got the death penalty.
And I never understood why the one young white boy didn't spend one day in jail, and Dominique got the death penalty. That disparity just bothered me. But
anyway, so Dominique was mad over that.
He was mad over the fact that his family had, his mother in particular had some mental problems. She had really abused him horribly, put his hand over an
open flame when he was a little kid. Shot a gun at him.
Finally kicked him out of the house when he was a young teenager. He ended up living out on the streets of Houston in abandoned houses and storage sheds and
things like that.
And did what probably would happen to most young people under those circumstances, he ended up getting into a life of crime, selling drugs, getting into a
life of crime. And he was with this gang of boys and that happened. And this was in the early nineties.
So—and his mother, basically, at the trial told the judge and the jury and attorneys, "Do whatever you need to do with Dominique. I don't care." She was just
really, she just turned him out and just said, you know.
I think she even said something like, "Give him the worst you can give him." So she really—now she had mental problems. I got to know the family real well.
And I got to know her pretty well.
I spent probably—I probably spent twelve to fifteen hours in a car with his mother, taking her—for one thing I took her, when I found out that Dominique and
she were not speaking because of what had happened,
I ended up—I was able to work a time when I took her up to visit him, with the hope that there would be some reconciliation, which did happen, which was
nice. So I took her up to prison to visit him two or three different times, maybe three times.
I took—Dominique had two younger brothers, so I took one of his younger brothers up to visit him. And then I took, Stephanie, the mom, up to Austin for a
program one time.
So I spent a lot of time in the car with her, and got to know her pretty well and found out what happened to her as a child. And this is when you get into
the families it really opens your eyes.
Dominique's mom, Stephanie, was horribly abused as a child herself. Tried to commit suicide several times. Ran away from home. So the abuse that she was
handing out to Dominique was the abuse that she had received as a child. It was that cycle.
And we've got to do something about these cycles. And I'm not an expert on how to do that, but I know that's part of what we need to learn how to do as
the human race.
So, Dominique was angry, angry at his mom, angry at the world, angry at what happened to him, angry at the criminal justice system, angry at these other
members in the gang. And—but over time he changed, which was the most amazing thing.
He really—he grew up, he had people like myself who were visitors many times. You find out that people in prison on death row, the first time they
really had somebody they would call a real friend is when they are in prison,
somebody who cares about them and they're not trying to get anything from them. So myself and Barbara and a number of some other people that visited him,
while in prison he wrote a letter to, I think, a newspaper in Italy
and got a whole bunch of people from Italy to become his supporters and friends. And Barbara was one of these people, but it was also a group over there
called the Sant'Egidio Community in Rome.
And there were some people in Sant'Egidio who started writing, and that community, which is a large world-wide community, basically adopted Dominique as one
of their—the people that they wanted to help.
So, over time, through all these influences, his reading, growing up, he developed. Dominique developed mentally and spiritually and became a different
I could see this happening right before my eyes, and he became a mentor for other prisoners on death row even.
And one of the really interesting parts of it is that he read one of the books that Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote called
No Future WithoutForgiveness about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
And so that whole idea of forgiveness, not really having a future, individually, or a nation or anybody, unless somehow they can forgive people who have hurt
them, became a really important part of his life. And he really took it in and that helped also with his transformation.
And later, through one of his attorneys, a woman named Sheila Murphy from Chicago, and again Tom Cahill the author from New York, they were able to get
Archbishop Desmond Tutu to come visit Dominique on Death Row.
And I worked on that program, trying to get some things set up. And then we had a program at the little Episcopal Church up in Livingston, Texas, with
Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the visit.
Well anyway, Tutu came out of the prison after the visit and said to the press ‘cause there was press there, "Dominique is a remarkable advertisement for
God." That was his statement."A remarkable advertisement for God."
And so we worked, as time was going on—after about ten years, usually all these appeals get worked through and there were a lot of people working on this
case, a lot of attorneys.
But nothing seemed to be really happening in the way of a legal change that would help him. And so his attorney, again Sheila Murphy, asked if I could find
the family of the victim. The victim's name was Andrew Lastrapes. And I couldn't find him.
I went through every Lastrapes in the Houston phone directory, called them, none of them were the right people, and what had happened is that the
family, the mother had gone back to—there were two sons involved—had gone back to her maiden name which was Luckett, L-u-c-k-e-t-t, and that's why we couldn't find him.
And finally, Sheila had a young man working for her who ended up with a telephone number that he passed on to me. I called the number and I got connected
with the family. And I went over, still, you don't know how you're gonna—what the reaction's gonna be ‘cause many times they're angry still.
But I went over and visited this family over in the southeast side of Houston, and Bernatte Luckett and her two boys, Andrew and Andre, excuse me, and they
all wanted, none of them wanted to see Dominique executed.
It was just an incredible experience to me. I have to say that I have found some of the most wonderful—they're African American. The victim, Andrew
Lastrapes, Senior was African American.
I found some of the—an ability sometimes to forgive and to move on in the African American community that I have not seen in other communities.
Probably I would say (chuckles)—this is very dangerous doing this, but I'd say African Americans, Latinos, have an ability to forgive and move on more than
white people. Now there are white people that do it too, I know.
But I think in general, I've seen that a number of times. Anyway, getting back to that particular case. They did not want to see Dominique executed.
And that was—so she wrote a letter, the mother, the widow, actually, the widow of the victim, wrote a letter to the Governor of the Board of Pardons and
Paroles, appealed for his life.
Andre and Andrew both went up to visit Dominique on Death Row. I felt I was living in a different world altogether. I mean I thought this was just—this can
hardly—this was so unusual. And these two—and so here's two young boys who are both in their mid-twenties.
The two sons of the victim, visiting with Dominique who's on Death Row for the murder of their father, although we had questions whether Dominique was really
the guy that did the shooting.
But still, he was the guy that was on Death Row, visiting across from each other. It was just—to me it was like a vision of heaven, what heaven should
be, that people could do something like that.
And I maintained that friendship with the Lastrapes or Luckett family ever since because—in fact, well— let me finish with that other—with the story on
Dominique and I'll go back to that—the other family.
They, on the day that Dominique was executed, both Andre and Andrew went up and visited him. And Dominique gave them, he had prayer beads that he gave them
and he gave them a little book of African prayers by Desmond Tutu. And gave that to them.
And then they went over to the prison where the executions take place in Huntsville and stood vigil as a protest against Dominique's execution—just
And then—but then later I maintained—and I had to—I was—Dominique asked me to witness the execution. And it was horrible. It was not the first time I had
witnessed an execution. It was the second time.
But to see Dominique strapped down on that gurney with these needles in his arm ready to be killed by the state just—just horrible.
I mean if you really want to see something that's evil, that's probably the most evil thing I've ever seen in my whole life is an execution. Just really
evil. I can't come up with any other word for it that's really adequate.
So that was really tough, obviously. And—but I did maintain also the relationship with the Lastrapes-Luckett family after that. And the community in Italy,
Sant'Egidio actually provided some money and we got to further the education of both sons.
And they're willing to, if he wanted it, to provide some money to help with the education of Dominique's younger brother, Hollingsworth, who lives here in
Houston. If he wants to say go on to a computer school or something like that that he was interested in.
So that community in Italy, the Sant'Egidio Community was very involved in everything that happened. And we wanted to everything we could do for the
Lastrapes family and also for Dominique's younger brother, in particular.
His other brother, Dominique had two brothers. The older brother Marlin is up in—is in the military and has got a whole life of his own. He doesn't really
need any help. But the younger brother does.
So we've carried on with that as sort of wanting to—we knew that's what Dominique would want for both families. So, well I went on a lot about that one case,
I know, but that was one of the other ones that I was very involved in.
James Allridge was another one that I spent a lot of time with. And I have visited probably, I don't know, twenty, twenty-five people over the years, some
more intensely than others.
It's really interesting to see the change—it's really interesting to see how they change over time. I visited one guy up there for a number of years who I
didn't think was becoming rehabilitated. I thought he was angry and mad and would always be so.
But I got a letter from him the other day that sort of almost sounded like a different person. And then you get to meet their families, which is a whole
different story. What a family goes through when they have a son in prison like that.
I mean, death row is—we got about three hundred and seventy people I think on Death Row at this time. But the larger picture is what we have in our prisons
in general in Texas, which is over one hundred and sixty thousand people incarcerated.
Every one of those people, every one of those—they have a family. And the families, this is just shattering to them to have to go through this. But you meet
the families and you start thinking about how did this ever happen?
Getting back specifically to death row. How did this ever happen? And I've always tried to understand what I call the root causes, because if we don't
get at the root causes, this will never end.
And you can, after awhile, you can see some common factors: bad family situations, abuse and neglect of children, poverty, lack of education, drug and
alcohol problems, mental illness, mental retardation, brain damage.
Every now and then you'll meet somebody who doesn't seem to fit into any of the—have any of those problems. They don't seem to have any mental
problems. You'll find out about their families.
It seemed like they had a fairly decent family, and they—so you have to ask yourself, "What—how did this person get here?"
And so, many times I'll ask them, "Did you—," if they're a young person in particular, I say, "Did you run in a gang?" Sometimes you find they ran in
They got into a gang activity, and did something in a gang that they'd probably never do as an individual. Never do—in a one time kind of event. But it was a
bad event. A horrible event that caused somebody to die and they ended up on death row.
So, whatever we do to stop gang activity is important too because some—I talk to young groups every now—like young kids in churches and schools, and I say,
"Look it, be real careful about who your friends are". I know your parents tell you that already, but if you go out riding in a car with say three or four guys in a car and one of the kids
in that car has a gun, and you don't even know about it, if that gun gets used and somebody gets killed, you can end up on death row".
"And you didn't even know the gun was in the car. It'll happen so fast that you won't even—you can't believe that it's even happened to you. So you gotta be
real careful about who you're running with, who you're going with".
"And—‘cause it could happen to—it could happen. And you're not a bad—it's not that you're a bad kid or anything like that, it's just that you are not with
the right people at the time when something happened".
"A kid jumps out of the car and goes off and decides to do something and boom, you're part of it". So the gangs are something that—there are a number
of kids who get on death row because of gangs, too. Not a lot, but some.
But mental illness, abusive family situation, abuse and neglect as children. There are some people that end up there. They actually were in an accident as a
child and had a brain damage, a physical brain damage that caused them problems.
Couldn't go to school and just everything started to spiral down after that. And so until we address these root causes, we're just not gonna have
a better society.
So part of the work that I do, I talk about stopping the death penalty, but I also talk about—I talk about two other things. I talk about preventing violent
crime, which most people, no matter what their position is on the death penalty, can agree with that.
Nobody wants violent crime. Nobody wants crime at all. And, but right now in Texas our priorities are wrong. We think we're going to solve these problems
through incarcerating and executing people.
And that's not going to make our society a better society. And so we have to get at root causes. And we really have to do more to help also the victims of
And I speak about that a lot too because people who are victims of crime, whether it's murder, the families of murder victims, they get overall they—they're
just— they're going through hell with what's happened in their family.
But then they do not get treated, I think, properly by the authorities. I don't think our churches do nearly enough to help out people in that category. And
so we have to do more for the families of the victims and the victims themselves.
And we have to do a much better job there. So when I talk on the death penalty I go both, I also talk about the victims, and I also talk about how to
work on the root causes of crime. ‘Cause I think that's more of a complete picture. And we've got a serious problem.
This is—I don't—I really don't know what to do about it, but people come here, come to the United States from other countries where they have some form of
gun control and they think we're crazy here with all the guns that we have.
And that's even a hotter subject to talk about than the death penalty is gun control. So, but with all the guns that are around, I think there's almost one
gun per citizen in this country, which means there are millions and millions of guns just out there.
And when people get upset or they're high on drugs and alcohol, if they got a gun, then well, it sometimes gets used. And I, yeah, you could kill somebody
with a knife too and it does happen.
But you don't have too many drive-by knifings. You have drive-by shootings every now and then, but not drive-by knifings. So we've got a lot of problems
socially to deal with, I think. So I went all the way from Dominique Green to solving the problems of society.
But Dominique is a good example of what is wrong in our society, I think, and everything.
If his mother, if Dominique's mother had got help with her problems adequately, there somehow could be intervention so a kid like Dominique didn't end up on
the streets. So there's a lot to do, a lot of work to do.
RAYMOND: You talked about Dominique as one of the people that you were closest to. And you talk about him in the book. Could you also talk
about James Allridge a little bit? [inaudible]
ATWOOD: Sure. Yeah. James, again I think I visited James for eight or nine years. Again a very—not the kind of person you expect to find on death
From the moment I met him— I never knew James when he was angry like I knew Dominique at a time when he was angry when he was younger. From the time I
met James, the question I always had in my mind was how did this person ever end up on death row.
Because you met him and you felt like this is a person who had so much to offer the world and to society, and could do so much good in the world if he was
not in prison.
And so you'd say, well this is—you'd meet him and you'd talk with him—you'd say, well this is a person you could be in a restaurant with having a meal with
and having a wonderful conversation and what's he doing here?And I always had this question in my mind to James. I said-finally I asked him, I says, You know I wanna do something
with you that I've never done with anybody before. I'd like to do an interview with you. And I did that.
And we published it in the
Houston Peace News. And one of my questions was, James, how did you ever end up on death row? And I was really interested to find out what his answer was. And basically his—what he
said was that I was—he said, "I'm not gonna use this as an excuse, but I was under the influence of my older brother who was into criminal—doing some criminal activity, who had some mental
problems of his own.
But he was into criminal activity and I looked up and I adored my brother." And he—and one of the things he explained to me—he came from a family-his family
and I got to know that whole family too, and really a wonderful family, but the family had some religious beliefs that made it difficult for James to have other friends in
It was like if, well it sort of forced him into a position that about the only person he could relate with much was his older brother, and so he became
very close to his older brother. And, but James was—you met him and you say well this person just couldn't be on death row.
And he explained that his brother got into some criminal activity and drew James and James admired his brother and he got involved in it with his brother.
And during one of these—during a robbery he shot somebody and killed him. And he admitted it.
He said, "I did it. I did it. And I'm not saying I'm innocent at all. But I realize how wrong it is now, what I did, but again I was just in this sort
of time in my life when I was pretty much doing what my brother wanted me to do and we were doing this."
But then that wasn't like his true nature. It was like an aberration, I would say, of who James Allridge really was. And by the way there were—in this
family, the Allridge family from Fort Worth, there were a mom and dad. The father was a military person.
They moved around I think a fair amount. There were five children. There were James and his older brother Ronald—like they were the first two brothers. And I
think there was a little bit of a gap in there and then there were three younger brothers.
Both older brothers, Ronald and James ended up going to death row. Ronald was executed and James was ultimately also.The three younger brothers, when I
knew them, when I got to know them, one was a investment banker, one was a retirement counselor for the Dallas School District and the third was an artist.
And as far as I know none of them have ever had any problems whatsoever that I know of with the law. And really likable guys, ‘cause I got to know especially
the younger brother, Stanley Allridge real well.
Tall, handsome guy—just top-notch person. He was the investment banker. And so the family, the five boys, just they'd gone through this horrible time with
these two older boys and, but James when he was in prison just became the most outstanding artist of anybody I've ever known on Death Row. And he does these flowers and he does animals,
just fantastic quality.
We've got some of these hung up in the Texas Coalition office in Austin, by the way, if you ever want to stop by and see them. They're prints, but—and he
became very personable, a good writer.
And so he—sometimes the prisoners on death row will get attention brought to them because they're so outgoing. There are a number of them aren't in that
category. They have mental problems and they're just—they can't do it. But there are some that can.
James was probably one of the most outgoing, friendly, personable people you'd ever meet. And his art got to be known pretty well, not only in the United
States but in other—Europe. It went to Europe. He developed this writing relationship with Susan Sarandon.
If she, if Susan is writing anybody else in prison, I don't know about it, but far as I know he was the only one here on death row that she wrote. And so
everybody was very attracted to James as a person, and nobody wanted to see him executed.
I certainly didn't. I mean, I visited him a number of times. It was always a wonderful experience to talk with him. And, so but then the time, again,
you go out eight or ten, twelve years, and usually your appeals are done and we could tell it was getting close to his execution—the possibility of him being executed.
And we had this fundraiser in Houston for him with Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean. And then she went up, Susan later went on up later to visit
him in prison. And I'll never forget that visit. That was really something. She was doing like yoga exercises in the visiting room in the prison, Susan Sarandon was.
And—but then she had her own visit with James. She had always written him. She had never met him. That was the first time she really actually visited him.
And so we tried very hard. I mean, everybody wrote letters. Everybody pleaded.
We bring up with the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Governor, certain people—Karla Faye Tucker is a good example of somebody who is obviously truly
rehabilitated, who could do so much good with their life, at least give these people a chance.
And there is a stonewall. They will not allow people to be—to go even for life in prison so they can do some good things with their life. It's just this
attitude that we have in Texas of—and it's the Texas officials and politicians, not all of them, but the ones that have the power right now, who do this. I don't think it's the citizens so
much. I mean I've seen a real shift in how a lot of citizens see the death penalty in Texas.
RAYMOND: Let me interrupt you on this very important question, we're about to run out of tape so I don't want to—
David Atwood is an anti-death penalty activist. In Video 1, Atwood describes his involvement with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and his relationships with since-executed Death Row inmates including Richard Jones, Ronald Allridge, James Allridge, Antony Fuentes, Dominique Green or their families, as well as the family of murder victim Andrew Lastrapes. In Videos 2 and 3, Atwood describes an execution and outlines numerous problems with capital punishment. In Video 3, Atwood ascribes the relative silence of the contemporary Catholic Church about the death penalty to generational change: a generation of men who focus narrowly on abortion have replaced Vatican II-era clergy who cared about social justice in broad terms.This interview took place on September 25, 2008 in Houston, Harris County, Texas.
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Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Interviewer
Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Videographer
Susanne MasonRole: Transcriber
Sabina Hinz-FoleyRole: Proofreader
North America--United States--Texas
North America--United States--Texas--Austin
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